Many people in the Israeli protest movement, including many key organisers, are left-wing on the Palestinian issue.
But the movement as a movement took a decision very early on not to touch the question of the occupation, the settlements and so on, despite the vast money spend on the army, the settlements, the Wall. A lot of left-wingers think they will inevitably move in that direction. I’m not so sure. It’s not that people don’t know there’s a link, it’s that they don’t want to make it, because they’re afraid of losing a big part of their support. And they would lose a lot of support — perhaps a majority.
There is, however, one side of the protests which is more hopeful.
It is almost universally accepted in the movement that the Arab citizens of Israel are also part of it, that they are included in the people for whom it is demanding social justice. Many slogans along the lines of “Jews and Arabs unite” have been raised. At one point quite early on in the movement, a group of far-right racists tried to set up a camp inside the tent city in Tel Aviv, and raise slogans about throwing Arabs out of Israel. They were thrown out of the camp, and a decision was taken that everyone is welcome except racists.
That doesn’t change the fact that the failure to raise the occupation is a major limitation, but in terms of Israeli politics it is very, very significant.
The next leader of the Israeli Labour Party will be decided on Wednesday 21 September. In the first round, it was almost a tie between Shelly Yachimovich and Amir Peretz. Both are broadly social democratic, but if I was going to make a choice I would prefer Peretz as he is more open about the question of peace. Yachimovich says that the left has talked too much about the Palestinians, and that it why it alienates the lower classes. On the other hand, Peretz was previously Labor Party leader, and he blew the immense hope he had generated by joining Olmert’s neo-liberal government as defence minister and overseeing the brutality of the war in southern Lebanon.
There is also an ethnic element in the election, since Peretz is a Moroccan Jew from a working-class background, and very open and proud about this.
Last week there were no big demonstrations, but there was a “round table” mobilisation with thousands of people all over the country sitting down to discuss.
The government feels under pressure. The commission it set up is about to report, and is likely to propose some concessions — though nowhere near what the movement has demanded.
One sign of the impact of the movement is the debate that has broken out in the government. The Minister of Defence has vigorously opposed any reduction in military spending, and said that new spending should come from higher taxes on the rich and businesses! The Minister of Finance has opposed this on the familiar grounds that it will lead to an exodus of millionaires and the collapse of the economy.
There is no longer an automatic acceptance of a free market economy. What changes the movement will win, however, remains to be seen.
There will be big Palestinian demonstrations on Friday, to coincide with Abu Mazen’s [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’] speech at the UN.
The Palestinian Authority wants big rallies in all the cities, but wants these to stay in the city centres, and go nowhere near confronting the IDF or the settlements. Whether they will mobilise the masses within these strict limits is a difficult question to answer. There may be clashes between demonstrators and the PA security forces, before it even comes to a clash between Palestinians and Israelis.
We should look at the precedent of the Second Intifada [the Palestinian uprising which began in 2000, and was brutally repressed by the Israeli military].
Palestinians tried to hold non-violent protests, but when the IDF reacted with violence, the situation spiraled out of control. This time the PA is very keen to avoid violence — and the IDF says it is too. They have perfected their use of “skunk”, foul-smelling water that can be used on protesters, so that it can be sprayed from the air.
I think there’s probably an element of truth in the claim that Israel wants to avoid violence, but that doesn’t mean they won’t use violence in the event.
Palestinian activists are quite divided over the UN bid. If it was realised it would mean the realisation of a two-state solution, and of course a big minority of Palestinians oppose that. On the other hand, many think that, even if the US did not veto — which it will — status at the UN will not change the facts on the ground and is a distraction.
Many civil society organisations in Palestine are not taking a position either way, which I think reflect a general unhappiness but not having a clear alternative.
Regardless of what happens at the UN, it is a symbol of the Palestinian leadership’s newfound willingness to confront the US. Over the years it has become more and more obvious that the US is not an honest broker; that Israel is always in the room, whether it formally is or not. But a crucial turning point has come with Obama, since he has been such a disappointment and allowed Netanyahu to run rings around him. So the Palestinians think, why not?
This is part of the longer term process of the gradual decline of US power in the world, and it is highly significant.